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22 May 2014

Neither male nor female?

Neither male nor female?

I recently received an inquiry from a church leader who was worried that the Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith could imply that God does not love intersex people. In formulating a reply I thought it could be helpful to share on a wider basis some brief personal reflections on this obscure and difficult area, not least since further inquiries have lately been received asking similar questions.

A person with an intersex condition is born with sex chromosomes, external genitalia, or an internal reproductive system that is not considered standard for either male or female. The frequency of intersex (previously often referred to as 'hermaphrodite') conditions is difficult to determine in view of the necessary surrounding confidentiality. However, they are usually extremely rare. There are a range of extremely well-known physiological conditions which involve disruptions to the normal genetic pre-natal developmental processes. Classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia or androgen sensitivity syndrome, for example, are thought to occur in 1 in 13,000 births. Some unsubstantiated claims made by transgender groups suggest that as many as 1 in 100 people could be 'sex or gender diverse' though such claims are often based on self-diagnoses. However, based on figures from medical centres about how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number appears likely to be in the region of 1 in 1,500 to 1 in 2,000 births.

'Intersex' conditions are not to be confused with 'transgender' conditions which are recognised psychological conditions (technically referred to as 'gender dysphoria') in which people who are born with a completely unambiguous male or female body develop gender identity issues resulting in their rejection of their biological sex and often self-identifying as a member of the opposite sex.

Where intersex conditions are evident at birth medical experts usually confer and by consideration of multiple factors and by agreement recommend bringing up the child (often accompanied by appropriate surgery soon after birth) usually in line with the gender they are closest to, even though in certain cases this may conflict with their chromosomal sex identity.

There are some well-known cases where mistakes have been made and subsequent painful corrections have had to be made, or where the condition does not manifest itself until puberty, when again difficult medical decisions may have to be reached. 

It is only in recent times that the media have reported cases of a few people born with intersex conditions who have self-identified by declaring, for example, that their sex is 'neutral' or that they are 'androgynous'. In some cases they may have sought some form of appropriate legal recognition. In a 2014 landmark case in Australia, for example, the New South Wales high court, after much argument, upheld the legal right of an individual to be registered ambiguously as neither a man nor a woman with the official registry of births, marriages and deaths. Interestingly, the court decided that 'male' and 'female' were the only 'registerable classes' of sex and refused the requested assignation of a new sex category such as 'intersex' or 'transgender'.

It tends to be true that many people generally seem to prefer simple straightforward explanations. Intersex is complicated and not easily understood by most people. Hence the need, particularly in a socially constructive society where people increasingly believe they can create their own identities, perhaps to self-identify with a label such as 'gender diverse'.

When we consider how Christians might respond to such people it seems evident that there is no reason to treat them any differently than anyone else, not least since in the majority of cases they will be living successfully in the most appropriate gender. If there is any biblical precedent for treatment of intersex people then probably the nearest parallel would be that of eunuchs where there is a clear trajectory of acceptance through both Testaments culminating in the salvation story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.

Theological speculation along the lines that Adam may have been created both male and female or 'sexless' is probably best regarded as being exactly that - speculation. Scripture is clear that God created human beings as binary male and female (Genesis 1.27). Speculating otherwise can lead in dangerous and misleading directions. There have been significant such instances from earliest church history.

It is apparent that some people are born with a range of physical abnormalities (which as I indicated includes intersex) and there are serious Christian apologetic theologies that seek to engage with the difficult 'why does God allow …?' questions that may consequentially arise. In the Gospels Jesus addresses some of these related ethical dilemmas - such as the man born blind (John 9) or those who suffer misfortune or accident (Luke 13). His responses in these instances trouble some people but nevertheless point to a profound underlying theological reality that an originally perfect created order has in fundamental ways been marred by the fall.

My understanding of the Christian gospel is that Christians should relate openly to all human beings, welcoming them as they come in their many varying (and fallen) conditions (which of course includes each of us). Those who claim to be born again Bible-based Christians will seek to conform their lifestyles to the commands of God. But any suggestion that God does not love people with congenital conditions - including intersex - is not one that I would recognise as orthodox Christian.

A personal reflection by Don Horrocks, head of public affairs, Evangelical Alliance.